Foreign Policy and the 2010 Midterms: New START and Arms Control

Foreign Policy and the 2010 Midterms: New START and Arms Control

A new arms control agreement with Russia has met political opposition in the U.S. Senate, and some analysts believe its fate is tied to the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections. This Backgrounder examines the Senate debate.

Last updated November 10, 2010 7:00 am (EST)

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on the foreign policy implications of the 2010 midterm elections.

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U.S. President Barack Obama has made arms control and nonproliferation key elements of his national security strategy (PDF). Critical to this agenda is passage of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the so-called New START agreement. The treaty would replace the 1991 precursor that expired last year, and seek deeper cuts to nuclear arsenals and launchers than the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). New START was signed by the U.S. and Russian presidents in April 2010, and received enough bipartisan support for approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-September 2010. It now awaits full Senate for consideration.

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Obama has urged senators to swiftly approve New START, and Vice President Joseph Biden has said ratification "will protect our security and make the world a safer place." Yet New START and nuclear weapons policy became topics of intense partisan debate leading up to, and following, the 2010 congressional midterm elections. Republican lawmakers and conservative analysts have expressed disappointment with the president’s nuclear posture and have used debate over the arms reduction treaty to highlight these concerns. While Democrats will continue to hold a simple majority in the Senate in 2011, the two-thirds necessary for treaty passage may be hampered by the Republican capture of six additional seats. Therefore, many observers see the 2010 lame-duck session as a decisive political window for New START.

Arms Control and the Political Calendar

Following the midterm elections, proponents of New START ratification see reason to be apprehensive (CQ) about its chances in the next Senate. Given the shifting power dynamic come January, the Obama administration is pressing for passage of the treaty during the lame-duck session. Prior to the election, some bipartisan support had already been secured (HuffPost) from three Republican senators--Richard Lugar (R-IN), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA)--but a recent memo issued by the Republican Policy Committee indicates that, at the very least, serious opposition remains.

Historically, START has received bipartisan support, including from much of the Republican establishment and military elite (PragueProject), however the incoming freshman class of Republican senators, particularly those associated with the Tea Party movement, has expressed considerable reservations with the treaty (FP). The current math for ratification would require the fifty-eight sitting Democrats (including two caucusing Independents) to procure nine additional, Republican votes. Many of the treaty’s supporters see a viable compromise reliant on satisfying the concerns of Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) (NewsHour), a principal point of Republican opposition.

The treaty debate has been tied by some critics to the administration’s overall stance on maintaining a nuclear arsenal. John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, argues the Obama administration is not spending enough (NRO) to upgrade the United States’ existing nuclear stockpile. However, some liberal analysts, like Max Bergmann, at the Center for American Progress, have voiced frustration at what they perceive as superficial objections motivated by base political gamesmanship. Regardless of the source of political wrangling, failure to ratify New START in the lame-duck session may disrupt or dismantle U.S.-Russian cooperation (NYT) on a host of international issues including terrorism and the Iranian nuclear program.

Defining a New START

The New START treaty would limit each country to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, down from a 2,200 limit set by the 2002 SORT agreement. The measure would also limit to 800 the number of deployed and non-deployed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and heavy bombers; streamline monitoring and verification procedures; and rewrite counting rules for calculating the number of warheads allowed under the treaty. Amy F. Woolf, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, writes that the treaty (PDF), as endorsed by the Obama administration, is aimed at strengthening strategic stability and enhancing U.S. national security, while "convincing other nations that the United States is serious about its obligations under the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]." Woolf says the end game is to "convince more nations to cooperate with the United States in pressuring nations who are seeking their own nuclear weapons," notably Iran.

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The original START treaty was allowed to expire in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration. As early as 2007, Bush administration officials announced their intent not to renew the measure (Reuters), indicating that although the treaty had been effective, the pact was overly cumbersome and complicated. But in signing the follow-on treaty agreement in April 2010, President Obama said elements of the new treaty--including a comprehensive verification regime, which allows U.S. inspectors onsite access to Russian weapons stocks--were critical to ensuring "both sides the flexibility to protect our security." The United States has not had a verification regime in place (ArmsControlToday) since the original START treaty expired in December 2009.

To many analysts, New START represents a defining component of U.S.-Russian relations, and has become a critical piece of Obama’s foreign policy. "Strategic arms control is one of the fundamental frameworks for the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship," says Jeffrey F. Pryce, a former senior Pentagon legal and policy adviser and expert on nuclear disarmament. "When that process is working, we tend to get much better cooperation from Russia on broader issues like Iran, and you’ve already seen that. The Russians have canceled the sale of S-300 missiles to Iran (RIANovosti), [and] they’ve supported us in the UN Security Council" on issues related to sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.

New START and National Security

Proponents of swift passage--Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike--insist the treaty will improve relations with Russia, strengthen U.S. national security, and position the United States to better challenge would-be nuclear states. Military leaders are equally supportive.

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In a July 2010 letter to senators (PDF), seven former senior commanders of U.S. strategic assets said ratification would improve verification to allow for better understanding of Russia’s strategic forces. "The New START Treaty contains verification and transparency measures--such as data exchanges, periodic data updates, notifications, unique identifiers on strategic systems, some access to telemetry and on-site inspections--that will give us important insights into Russian strategic nuclear forces and how they operate those forces," the former Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command chiefs wrote. "We will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it." In a May 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also endorsed passage of the treaty.

Critics argue the treaty’s language will restrict U.S. missile defense plans; others say it is not paired with appropriate plans to modernize the existing nuclear weapons complex. Senator Kyl, for one, has argued that any new treaty should accompany detailed plans to upgrade and maintain the weapons that remain. The senator has positioned his criticism as an indictment of President Obama’s nuclear posture, including the administration’s support of bans on nuclear testing and restrictions on researching new weapons designs. "Such is the context for the debate about New START," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in July 2010. Michael Stransky, an analyst with the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, says "limitations on prompt global strike capabilities"--a conventional weapons system seen as a possible replacement for nuclear weapons technology--and the treaty’s "generally weak verification regime as compared to its predecessor" are other key areas of concern.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also called on senators to address "significant flaws" before endorsing ratification. McCain summarized his concerns in a letter on September 14, 2010. Among the most pressing issues, McCain wrote, was the potential impact on ballistic missile defense plans, including a "legally binding limitation on our missile defense options." The resolution voted on by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two days later included Republican-drafted language meant to address these concerns (ForeignPolicy), and some analysts believe the road has been paved for full Senate passage. Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, a former legal counsel in the Bush administration, writes that the updated treaty ensures "no president can use New START . . . to affect the U.S. missile defense program."

The Road Ahead

It remains unclear whether the latest updates will ensure ratification. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), one of four Foreign Relations Committee members who opposed sending the treaty for a vote, says despite improvements, additional fixes are needed, such as loosening perceived restrictions on prompt global strike and strengthening verification measures. Risch attempted to hold up committee voting following what he said was new intelligence that implicated Russia in cheating on other arms-control agreements (WashPost).

Pryce, the former Pentagon senior legal advisor, says the support for the treaty from military leadership and the Defense secretary will be tough for Republicans to counter. "At the end of the day, this is Ronald Reagan’s kind of arms control structure. Ronald Reagan’s coda was ’trust but verify,’ and as long as we don’t have the treaty, then effectively we have ’trust but don’t verify.’" Pryce adds: "Given the importance of onsite verification, which we currently don’t have, there’s a very good argument for getting it ratified this year." Even Kyl, the leading Republican opponent to ratification, appears to hint at the shifting winds on his website: "I might be able to support a new treaty if it addresses various concerns, including verification and the modernization of our nuclear stockpile."

Russian officials, meanwhile, say they are ready to ratify the treaty but are waiting until approval in the U.S. Senate. "From a technical point of view there is every opportunity to complete this process by the end of the year," Russian parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov said in early September 2010 (Reuters).

Jonathan Masters contributed to this report.


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